American Bar Association
Media Alerts
Media Alerts - United States v. Garcia-Lagunas -- Fourth Circuit
Decrease font size
Increase font size
November 7, 2016
  United States v. Garcia-Lagunas -- Fourth Circuit
Headline: Fourth Circuit Panel Disagrees Over Harm of Ethnically-Charged Evidence

Areas of Law: Evidence, Criminal Law

Issue Presented: Whether the government's use of ethnically-charged evidence to rebut appellant's assertion that he was too poor to have dealt in large quantities of drugs was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Brief Summary: In a published opinion from a panel rehearing, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the appellant's conviction for conspiracy to distribute or possess with intent to distribute cocaine, despite finding that the government committed non-constitutional error by using ethnically-charged evidence to rebut the appellant's defense that he was too poor to have dealt drugs in the amounts alleged by the government. The majority found the trial court erred in allowing expert testimony that all "Hispanic drug traffickers" send money they earn in the trade back to their native countries. Nonetheless, the court found the error harmless due to the strength of the government's case against the appellant. The court also remanded the case back to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina after vacating the appellant's sentence because of a miscalculation of his Guidelines range. In dissent, Judge Davis vehemently disagreed with the majority's finding of harmless error.

Extended Summary: In 2012, the police arrested Alejandro Garcia-Lagunas in a trailer in rural Robeson County, North Carolina during execution of a search warrant. Police found the appellant inside the trailer with white powder under his nose appearing impaired. The appellant produced $600 in cash from his pocket upon police request, as well as a cell phone which matched a phone number given by the informant as one he used to communicate with his supplier. Later analysis of that phone's records connected it with hundreds of phone calls to multiple known drug dealers, several of whom testified against the appellant pursuant to plea agreements. During their search, in addition to the phone and cash, officers recovered a handgun, small baggies, body armor, digital scales, a small baggie of crack cocaine, and a bag containing 800 grams of a white powdery substance later found to be cocaine.

The appellant was charged with conspiring to distribute or possess with the intent to distribute 500 grams of cocaine and unlawfully reentering the United States after having previously been deported. He pleaded guilty to the charge of unlawful reentry, but proceeded to trial by jury on the drug conspiracy charge. At the trial, the defense elicited testimony on cross-examination as to the poor conditions of the trailer. This testimony was offered in support of the defense theory that the appellant was not a drug trafficker but rather a drug user. On redirect, the detective stated that "he had extensive experience investigating 'Hispanic drug traffickers,' and that 'they're very modest living' because 'they send the majority if not all of the proceeds back to their native countries.'" In response to a defense objection, the government argued that the testimony was relevant to rebut evidence about the poor conditions of the trailer. At the bench, the District Court stated, "I'm not quite sure what the relevance of all of this is, but I do know, based on my experience, that most Latins send money home whether they're drug dealers or not." The District Court then overruled the objection and the detective repeated his testimony to the jury, stating, "It is consistent with Hispanic drug traffickers not to misuse the drug proceeds and to send or get rid of the proceeds, send them to their native countries or their next over them in the drug trafficking organization." This line of testimony was referenced by the government in closing argument to counter the defense's theory of the case. The jury found the appellant guilty.

A pre-sentence investigation report (PSR) added three two-level enhancements to the appellant's criminal responsibility for possession of a dangerous weapon, threatening or directing the use of violence, and obstruction of justice. The defense objected to all the enhancements, but the court only sustained two of those objections. Those two rulings lowered the appellant's offense level to 36, which in turn yielded a Guidelines range of 188 to 235 months' imprisonment. Then, pursuant to an agreement between the appellant and the government relating to a proposed amendment to the Guidelines, the offense level was lowered again to 34, with a Guidelines range of 151 to 188 month's imprisonment. The District Court then sentenced the appellant to 188 months' imprisonment, but stated that it was "impos[ing] a sentence at the low end of the range because this constitutes the defendant's first felony conviction." The District Court also sentenced the appellant to 24 months' imprisonment on the unlawful reentry conviction, to be served consecutively to the sentence on the conspiracy charge.

In holding that the District Court did err, the Fourth Circuit cited the rule that "injection of a defendant's ethnicity into a trial as evidence of criminal behavior is self-evidently improper and prejudicial." United States v. Cruz, 981 F.2d 659, 664 (2nd Cir. 1992). Proceeding then to the harmless error analysis, the court outlined the standard for this inquiry: whether beyond a reasonable doubt a rational jury would have found the defendant guilty absent the error. Neder v. United States, 527 U.S. 1, 18 (1999).

The court found that a rational jury would have arrived at the guilty verdict even absent the error beyond a reasonable doubt because of the strength of the evidence introduced by the government at trial: the quantity of the drugs involved in the conspiracy, the voluminous phone records, circumstantial physical evidence found at the scene, and the testimony of multiple corroborative drug dealers. Unlike cases in which courts ruled that evidentiary errors were not harmless, the Fourth Circuit found that "what [the appellant] did with his earnings from the drug trade was not an element of the prosecution's case against him." The court also stated that "although the government repeated the offensive stereotype in its closing argument, the improper evidence did not pervade the trial." Finally, the court held that "the challenged testimony did not open the door to the admission of further damaging evidence that would otherwise not have come in."

Regarding the appellant's challenge to his sentence, the court reviewed the contentions for plain error. The court found that the District Court had committed such error by miscalculating his offense level. Although the District Court stated it would impose a sentence at the low end of the range, it did so from the wrong range by failing to take into account one of the sustained objections. Furthermore, the Fourth Circuit found this error affected the appellant's substantial rights because it added roughly three years of imprisonment to his sentence.

Judge Davis dissented from the majority opinion as to the harmless error holding. In Judge Davis' view, the Government failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the ethnically charged generalization did not contribute to the jury's verdict. Judge Davis found merit in the evidence put forth by the defense that the defendant was too poor to have committed this large-scale conspiracy and stated that there were two compelling narratives in front of the jury. He found such competing narratives were the natural course for many trials and the government should not have the benefit of "blatantly foul blows...abetted by the trial judge, in the use of racial or ethnic entreaties aimed at undermining or dismissing outright the defense theory of the case." Judge Davis found this evidence to be quite persuasively used by the government in closing argument, as evidenced by the persuasive effect it had on the trial judge. Judge Davis wrote, "At a moment in our country's history when uncommon attention is being paid to issues of racial and ethnic stereotyping and consequent mistreatment, actual or threatened, this Court chooses to privilege the Government to employ, without consequence, irrelevant, prejudicial, and factually unwarranted evidence of blatant racial stereotyping to obtain a criminal conviction. In this moment, not even the ethnic heritage of distinguished federal judges is beyond trashing in the public sphere, and by a prominent candidate for the most powerful office on the planet, no less."

To read the full opinion, click here.

Panel: Judges Duncan and Diaz, and Senior Judge Davis

Argument Date: 09/17/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 09/01/2016

Docket Number: No. 14-4370

Decided: Affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded by published opinion

Case Alert Author: Patrick J.L. Dillon, University of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Paul K. Sun, Jr., ELLIS & WINTERS, LLP, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant. Kristine L. Fritz, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Kelly Margolis Dagger, ELLIS & WINTERS, LLP, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant. Thomas G. Walker, United States Attorney, Jennifer P. May-Parker, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judge Diaz

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 11/07/2016 03:38 PM     4th Circuit  

FuseTalk Enterprise Edition - © 1999-2018 FuseTalk Inc. All rights reserved.

Discussion Board Usage Agreement

Back to Top